Prison Politics: A Note on “Cancel Culture”

Below is an off-cut from my previous post on Dorian Batycka’s article written against a dangerously indeterminate form of taboo.

In that article, there is a brief exploration of cancel culture, of which Batycka writes:

While critics of cancel culture propagate a myth that being cancelled is akin to a form of censorship or an attack on free speech, cancel culture is voluntary withdrawal of attention, be it through a public re-reading or harsh critique.

I was thinking about this and the use of the phrase “voluntary withdrawal of attention” immediately prior to “public re-reading or harsh critique”. It stuck in my head for a bit. It is a paradox, like much of the rest of the article, where a virtuous retreat is defined through a mode of attack.

After thinking about it for a while, I wrote the following, reflecting on my own perceptions of cancel culture — both first- and second-hand.

From experience, having known a few people who have been “cancelled” — deservedly and undeservedly — the result of this situation is the imposition of a traumatic cognitive dissonance; a kind of ego-inflating paranoia.

On many occasions, I have watched as a cancelled person shows their face in public and wrongly assumes that everyone in a room is talking about them. They smirk to themselves maybe — if they are strong enough to remain defiant — believing that their enemies are disgruntled at their appearance in spite of their apparent removal from public life. In truth, most won’t know who said person is or care what they have to say.

This isn’t because the cancelled person lacks any self-awareness but because this is the unseen impact of this process on a socialised sense of self. Cancellation is, in this sense, a form of gaslighting, where abject scrutiny is replaced by a “withdrawal of attention” at such speed that the two actions appear simultaneous, leaving the cancelled person not knowing where they stand.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that, in many cases, mental health issues are triggered or inflamed by this sort of experience. This is the trauma of cancellation that is forever left unacknowledged by those who feel protected and on the right side of the mob, emboldened by the fact they believe the person concerned deserves everything they have coming to them. But rarely is this a righteous case of judgement and atonement or disagreement and separation. All too often, the impact is purely psychological and betrays a cruelty that those responsible will often deny that they themselves are capable of.

This was what happened to me towards the end of my time at Goldsmiths — and this is the sort of diffuse example I’m speaking to, which makes up the lion’s share of what people despise about “cancel culture”, I think, and not the sort of fraught public pursuit of extrajudicial justice that is defined by something like the #MeToo movement or no-platforming the alt-right.

In late 2017, a friend very viciously declared that they were cutting off all communication with me because they didn’t like the way I was “treating Mark Fisher’s work”. What they meant by this was never confirmed and any attempt on my part to push them into a further explanation was denounced as “bullying”.

This was not a singular incident, it should be said, on their part or more generally. This happened in 2017, when a broad mental health crisis subsuming the left resulted in various occasions where friends would lash out at friends, strangers at strangers, trying to root out the indeterminately dangerous and impure people in their midst. It was a McCarthite paranoia of the highest order. Whilst the shutdown of the LD50 Gallery inaugurated this process for us locally, the fallout spread far and wide and attached itself to something bigger that was looming.

It was like the left had developed an auto-immune disorder. An overproduction of white blood cells, produced to fight off a perceived invasion, led to the left carelessly attacking itself.

The unfounded nature of the particular critique levelled at me seems largely vindicated in my favour now. Nevertheless, the psychic whiplash I experienced was irreal and deeply traumatic. What began with an announcement of intense scrutiny was followed by a complete withdrawal of attention and communication.

Although I know now that this person was a very small minority, they did everything they could to appear bigger than that. For the next six months, I would wander around the pubs of New Cross carrying with me a deep-seated paranoia, assuming this person’s associates knew more about my apparent crimes than I did and felt I was not to be trusted. Whether I was actually being regarded with such pervasive suspicion or not was never ascertained on my part, but it felt that way.

I was left feeling downbeat and adrift, without any actual misbehaviour to reflect upon. One person had simply decided that I was not to be liked and this led to a public outpouring of silent scorn. As such, I didn’t know of any way that I could possibly defend myself because I wasn’t wholly certain of the charges brought against me in the court of public opinion, or of the identities of people now told to avoid me (although I had my own suspicions). Most of the people who seemed to view me with suspicions of their own were people I didn’t actually know. The paranoia intensified. It triggered a very real depression.

This experience very nearly pushed me into an even darker place — politically and mentally — and led me to lash out, on occasion, at a political home I now found riven by a weird McCarthyism. (We all know that McCarthyism was for rooting out communists but not by other self-identifying communists?!) I’m amazed, to this day, that I somehow managed to use the initial anonymity of this blog to write myself out of it, and retain a firm belief in our unavowable communities in the process. Nevertheless, I have since seen this same process be repeated numerous times since.

Cancel culture paradoxically makes such a huge spectacle out of withdrawing attention that when the process of excommunication is over and done with, the undesirable expunged from the culture finds that very same culture taking over their thoughts completely.

This is to say that the cultural impact of cancellation absorbs the mind of the person cancelled whilst life goes on unaffected for everyone else. It is a form of bridge-burning that has only ever led to people being pushed further into the arms of those they may have so far only been accused of associating with, worsening the disconnection that may or may not have existed in the first place. A sense of belonging is powerful and it both fuels cancel culture and the continued existence of the left’s apparent enemies.

This is what happened to me. Filled with a deep anger at the injustice I felt had been done to me, I found myself in company that was similarly angry but this anger was sometimes channelled into projects that genuinely scared me. Gradually, I made my way back, and whilst I still harbour a disgruntled attitude towards a left often ignorant to its own flaws, I’m glad to have done so, primarily for the wider communities I’ve found beyond a small one I was in that fell apart.

Thinking about this always reminds me of Jodi Dean’s Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture, when she spoke at length about Mark’s essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. (It was, tellingly, a very controversial lecture among many at Goldsmiths.)

Dean was talking about the stakes involved in calling someone “comrade”, rehearsing the argument of the book she would later publish with Verso. It was an inspired decision, I thought, to link Mark’s most controversial essay to the communal stakes involved in his nascent and increasingly popular Acid Communism.

More specifically, Dean was talking about the place of restorative justice in political organisations and how the communality of communism demands we take a harder look at how we deal with disagreement and social fissures. But people really didn’t like that.

There was an infamous moment in the Q&A at the end when someone asked, very provocatively, what the response would be if someone in a Communist Party raped another member. Do they just get allowed back into the party after some therapy and a time-out?

It reminded me of how, a few years prior, when the US justice system was really coming under scrutiny following the increased popularity of “true crime” TV series and podcasts documenting miscarriages of justice, there were many articles that would enthuse on the benefits of Norway’s prison system, with its focus on rehabilitation and restorative justice. And yet, a lecture audience in London’s leftiest university — on a social level at least — suddenly seemed squeamish about actually implementing these kinds of politics within its own ranks and immediate circles.

Dean, to her credit, did offer up some historical precedents for ways to deal with this hypothetical rapist but, really, it wasn’t a question Dean should have been asked in the first place. It said far more about the person asking the question then it did her argument and, as such, it’s the kind of question that those who proclaim to possess radical politics should ask themselves.

This isn’t to say that a rapist should be welcomed back into a political party but thinking about how that question affects the politics you sign your name to must surely be a necessary question to ask yourself? How far do your politics go? Are you really a communist? Or a prison abolitionist? I’m sure many present that day would have identified themselves as both those things but, when faced with the true stakes of those political identities — encapsulated in a limit chosen by themselves — they didn’t want to have to deal with it.

Perhaps these things are apples and oranges — prison abolition and being anti-cancel culture — but surely, if we are going to gleefully enter the business of discipline and punishment, the left should at least be consistent? At present it seems to be one rule for the state justice system, another when it comes to their own community relations.

The overarching point is that there are always ways of doing things that do not necessitate a psychological schism on the part of the person(s) concerned. (It is here that those who dismiss cancel culture after being cancelled for transphobia also tend to sound like hypocrites — this is a point that goes both ways and transphobia is another example of psychological violence that it is right not to tolerate. “Putting the other first”, as an ethical imperative, should not be placed under a priori conditions.) In this sense, even when the reasons for critique are very real and worrisome, the tactics of “cancel culture” are wholly antithetical to the politics they are meant to be protecting.

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who engages with or revels in such practices should not dare to call themselves a “comrade” in any sense of the word. They have no sense of the real work that a true belief in that term necessitates.


    1. That certainly seems to be the consensus now but, at the time, he got death threats over it!

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